Bobby Orr’s journey from Parry Sound prospect to NHL legend is by now the stuff of lore, and the first step is well-known: going to Oshawa and major-junior stardom as a 14-year-old wunderkind. It’s a sharp contrast to the path taken by the Owen Sound Attack’s Aidan Dudas, who really hadn’t played hockey outside of Parry Sound’s rep league until about the same age.
“My story isn’t like most that you’ll hear [in the OHL],” says the 18-year-old Dudas. “I didn’t play AAA hockey in atom or peewee.”
It was mostly a matter of geography and logistics: The nearest AAA team was the North Central Predators in Orillia, a good 80-minute drive from Parry Sound, where Rogers Hometown Hockey makes a stop this weekend.
“We talked about it as a family. It’s a lot of time in a car for a kid when you’re eight or nine years old,” says Dudas. “So in atom and peewee I just had fun with the game. I played rep with all my buddies from school at the Bobby Orr Community Centre. It wasn’t what most people would call a real high level of hockey. We all played other sports, too.”
Says his father, Mark: “When you’re looking at the commitment of time that it would have taken to pursue [AAA hockey] commuting like we would have had to, it would have been like we were taking his childhood away. It takes kids a while to determine what they want to do with their lives and I don’t think at [tyke or atom] they can really know.”
Today, Dudas believes his time in rep hockey helped him rather than held him back.
“If I would have played AAA when I was six or seven or eight years old and I had to travel all that time [to practices and games] I probably would have lost the love for the game,” he says. “The other benefit — and I’m not trying to sound cocky — but at the rep level … you have the puck on your stick a lot more than you would if you were playing AAA. You have a chance to develop skills and try to make plays for your friends.”
At more than a few levels, hockey became the bond that brought his family together.
“My [biological] mother died of ALS when I was four,” Aidan says. “My stepmother’s husband had [also] died in an accident. She was my kindergarten teacher so I take the credit for them meeting.”
Aidan’s older brother and sister gained a pair of stepbrothers when Mark married Debbie. Aidan himself gained something more than that.
“They’re just incredibly good people and excellent mentors to Aidan,” Mark says. “He always looked up to them. He’s especially close to [his older stepbrother] Jackson [Kuhn], who played professionally in Germany for five or six years.”
“They’re eight and 10 years older than me, so they were already in hockey,” Aidan says. “I looked up to them. And my [biological] brother, Noah, and I would spend hours playing with them on the backyard rink we had. They definitely have helped me along the way with my ambitions and the decisions that I’ve made.”
In Aidan’s bantam year, it was a now-or-never proposition — the window would shut once and for all on playing a higher level of hockey in Orillia than he had at home and in his backyard. Travel was still going to be an issue, but Aidan caught a break: Two friends from Parry Sound wound up trying out and making the cut for the team.
“Our families were able to car-pool and that made it a lot easier,” he says.
Easier off the ice, anyway. On the ice, though, it was another matter entirely. Making the jump from rep to AAA is a steep learning curve at any age, but certainly the older the player the more daunting the challenge.
“I’ll admit that the first year of playing bantam in Orillia was an adjustment,” he says. “I was used to having the puck on my stick 24/7 and being able to do pretty much anything that I want. That first couple of months [with the North Central Predators] I had to get used to everyone being so much faster and more skilled. It was pretty tough.”
In time, however, he not only kept up but set the pace. By his minor-midget year Aidan had played his way onto the OHL teams’ scouting radar — in 115 AAA games with the Predators he racked up 179 points.
The Attack wound up selecting him with their first-round pick in the 2016 OHL Draft. It wasn’t anything Aidan envisioned in his bantam season.
“I didn’t even know what the draft was,” he says.
Watch Dudas with the Attack and you get a sense of how his background influenced his game today. At five-foot-eight and 170 pounds, he’s not out there to muscle or intimidate opponents. He’s a play-making centre who has to make up for his lack of size with hockey sense and guile. He’s more of a play-maker than a pure finisher, a kid who shared the puck with his friends rather than trying to physically dominate play.
“Aidan was always a great teammate, loyal to his team and supportive of everyone,” his father Mark says. “He always wants to make everyone better.”
In the 2017–18 season, his draft year, Aidan shot up NHL Central Scouting Service’s rankings. At mid-season he was slotted at No. 131 among North American draft-eligible skaters. By the end of the season, with gaudy numbers for an 18-year-old (31 goals and 34 assists in 68 games), he ranked No. 68. Last June, the Los Angeles Kings selected him in the fourth round.
Thus, only five seasons removed from games with his friends at the Bobby Orr Community Centre, Aidan Dudas was on the ice at the Kings’ training camp.
Aidan Dudas doesn’t entertain thoughts that his will ever be Parry Sound’s hockey story. Bobby Orr has that one locked up. The road sign will herald it as his birthplace. Tourists will visit the museum dedicated to Boston’s No. 4.
“You know, Bobby Orr is an inspiration to someone like me,” Aidan Dudas says. “He had an amazing story and an amazing career. He came out of Parry Sound and became the greatest defenceman ever — whether it’s Parry Sound or a place like it, he proved that it can be done if you follow your dream.”
But if Bobby Orr is Parry Sound’s hockey story, Aidan Dudas is at the very least the greatest tale to come out of the town’s rep league.